The Heritage Foundation has always been full of hacks

Liberals have said the think tank used to be a policy powerhouse. In fact it's always been intellectually bankrupt

Published October 20, 2013 1:00PM (EDT)

Former Sen. Jim DeMint           (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
Former Sen. Jim DeMint (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

The current shutdown has shone a bright light on Washington’s premier conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation. Since former Sen. Jim DeMint took over Heritage’s presidency in 2012, it has used its power to push congressional Republicans as far to the right as possible on a number of positions including defunding Obamacare. Many credit its outside pressure as one of the key factors in forcing the recent shutdown. Liberal writers and publications have taken notice, with many asserting that such moves represent the “death” of an older Heritage model. Molly Ball’s take in is the most developed as she draws on interviews to present a narrative of institutional decline in which Heritage was once a respectable and studious institution with Ph.D.s producing rigorous conservative policy for Republican lawmakers that has become a political lobbying group that cares little about the intricacies of policymaking and will often disagree with Republicans on such matters. Moreover, according to Ball, Heritage was formerly an explicitly elitist organization funded by conservative elites for conservative elites. Now, it is too “grass roots” — more inclined to listen to Tea Party rabble-rousers than to Republican lawmakers.

This narrative of decline has an aura of plausibility given the actions undertaken since DeMint’s arrival. However, closer inspection of the history of Heritage reveals much more continuity between past and present: Today’s Heritage Foundation is what the think tank’s founders had in mind when they incorporated it in 1973. Heritage’s founders and caretakers have always prized the speed of policy production over rigor, and seen their institution as aligned with both conservative elites and the grass roots. Heritage has always sought to push the Republican Party to the maximal right-wing position, even if that meant disagreeing with Republicans in public. The commitment to this original project, developed and reworked over the past four decades, has led to the political ascendency of Heritage. Those who “wish it was the Heritage of old” are pining for something that never existed.

Incorporated in 1973, Heritage was the brainchild of two young conservative activists, Paul M. Weyrich and Edwin J. Feulner Jr. In the early '70s, Weyrich worked as a press secretary to Sen. Gordon Allott, R–Colo., while Feulner was an administrative assistant to Rep. Philip Crane, R-Ill. Since the late '60s they had been thinking of creating an institution dedicated to marketing conservative public policy. It is here that Ball’s idea of what they created, and what they wanted—“distinguished Ph.D.s” who created “white papers, not political campaigns,” who were “supposed to be above politics” and instead about “serious ideas, not tactical fights”—departs from reality. This was precisely what Weyrich and Feulner didn’t want. In fact, the men felt that Washington already had such a think tank: the American Enterprise Institute. Creating such a contrast is the foundational story that Heritage supporters continue to tell today.

In the spring of 1971, Feulner and Weyrich were working with their bosses on supersonic transport legislation. Both  men and the officials they represented favored continued federal funding for the plane but lost the final Senate vote by a slim margin. After the vote the men received an AEI study on the issue. Weyrich confronted AEI president William Baroody Sr. about the tardiness, to which Baroody supposedly replied, “We didn’t want to try to affect the outcome of the vote.” Feulner argues in the official Heritage institutional history, “It was at that moment that Paul and I decided that conservatives needed an independent research institute designed to influence the policy debate as it was occurring in Congress—before decisions were made.”

This story shows the type of think tank the men wanted: a highly political one rigorously engaged in tactical fights over legislation. Luckily for them, they met someone willing to finance such an institution: the beer magnate Joseph Coors, who by the early '70s had decided to funnel vast sums into conservative causes. Coors wanted an explicitly political think tank and he wants to see immediate legislative returns on his investment.

On June 29, 1973, only four months after Heritage’s incorporation, Feulner and Weyrich wrote Coors with an update on their efforts in getting the think tank, and other political organizations, off the ground. Of note, almost the entire memo is dedicated to legislative battles they were currently engaged in, including killing various wage and price controls, cutting funding for urban mass transit, making sure striking workers did not have access to food stamps, passing legislation to end busing in public schools and passing a balanced budget amendment, to start. In many of these battles, Heritage fought moderate Republicans and attempted to pull them rightward. Such has been the case over the institution’s entire history.

Of course, direct lobbying was not all Weyrich, Feulner and Coors had in mind; Heritage soon took on the trappings of a think tank: policy reports, conferences and media appearances. But such endeavors were never merely just intellectual exercise; they were designed to influence legislation in a more conservative direction. If necessary, pretensions such as peer review could be sacrificed to speed the production of reports and gain influence in public debate. In a 1985 speech, Feulner argued that Heritage specializes “in the area of quick-response public policy research and in marketing the academic works for public policy consumption.” In the same speech, he likened Heritage to Procter and Gamble in that the company “does not sell Crest toothpaste by taking out one newspaper ad or running one television commercial. They sell it and resell it every day by keeping the product fresh in the consumer’s mind.” Incessant and rapid promotion of policies as products has always been key to the Heritage model, with analytical rigor a distant second.

Increasingly throughout the '70s and '80s, Heritage was not alone in viewing policy in this manner. As I have argued before, conservative think tanks like AEI and Heritage were instrumental in the 1970s in changing the way Americans and policymakers debated policy. Previously, there was a “technocratic ideal” of sorts in place for policy debates whereby social scientists and politicians were deemed capable of defining social problems and then coming up with the best solutions to those problems through “scientific” techniques. While positioned as an apolitical way of debating policy, conservatives plausibly argued that such a discourse was biased toward liberal expansions of the welfare state in that posing “problems” and “solutions” in the first place assumed state intervention as the endpoint. By the late '60s and early '70s this technocratic ideal was crumbling under the weight of crises, foreign and domestic. Conservative critiques of the ideal gained resonance and conservatives, explicitly and implicitly, began to advocate a new way of debating policy in which conservative “voices” would be amplified. I, and some conservatives at the time, characterize this way of debating policy as a “marketplace of ideas” whereby the highest value in debating policy would no longer be “best solutions” but merely having a balanced marketplace where the ideas of liberals and conservatives would be heard simply because they “balanced” one another. Such a way of debating policy, which we are still living under today, means that a policy’s identity as a conservative one that balances a liberal one is the only thing required for it to be heard. Such a discourse does not rule out the idea that liberal and/or conservative policies could be founded on analytical rigor, but also does not require it.

For those like Feulner, Weyrich and Coors, who prized speed and relevancy of policy production, debating policy in this way was a boon. Producing rigorous policies, whether liberal or conservative, takes time. For an institution like Heritage, taking too much time meant losing relevancy. However, in a policy-debating world where one’s institutional identity as conservative was enough to be heard, speed was rewarded over rigor. Heritage capitalized on this dynamic.

Heritage publications from the 1970s reflected these priorities. For instance, a 1974 publication titled “Federal Child Development: What’s Developing?” lacked rigor and peer review, relying on decades-old “research” to argue against federal aid for childcare assistance and against the very ideas of child development, child advocacy and expertise in early childhood education—all seen as insidious plots hatched by the women’s movement to free women from their natural roles as caregivers and, ultimately, undermine “the family, qua family, as the basic institution of Western civilization.” The document even claimed that “maternal separation and deprivation” can “disrupt the action of the pituitary gland, the ‘master gland,’ causing abnormal growth and metabolism patterns, even dwarfism.”

Issues like childcare assistance, which engaged the emergent Christian religious right in the 1970s, often produced the most over-the-top Heritage research papers and claims. A 1976 paper, “Secular Humanism in the Schools,” advocated declaring secular humanism a religion, making it illegal to teach in public schools on religious freedom grounds. Research on other issues tended to be less outlandish but entirely predictable, merely repeating standard conservative takes on issues. Thus, primers on wage controls, natural gas deregulation, national health insurance, Vietnam policy, “Allende and the Failure of Chilean Marxism,” SALT treaties, and others merely repeated tried and true conservative stances of a hard-line defense policy and limited state intervention in the domestic economy. Again, this is not to say that Heritage could not, and would not, in the future produce rigorous “new” policy ideas. The ideas of the 1970s, however, were old and produced quickly for easy consumption within a policy debating world where their identity as “conservative policies” was enough to make them heard.

How, then, can it be argued that the “old Heritage” produced rigorous new policy white papers that, in turn, marked the GOP as the “party of ideas”? For evidence of this, Ball (and many others) primarily relies on Heritage’s “Mandate for Leadership,” its 3,000-page (condensed to 1,000 for public consumption) policy primer produced for the Reagan administration upon its victory in the 1980 presidential election. Ball cites its length and its “academic prose and mind-boggling level of detail” as establishing Heritage as the key institutional bastion of serious conservative thinkers. The book is big and contains a lot of detail, but heft does not automatically equal rigor. Like earlier Heritage writing, “Mandate” contains little that had not already been pushed by conservatives for decades. Deregulation, cutting the size and scope of federal agencies and cutting taxes are central to nearly every policy recommendation in the book. Rationales for these policies might have been slightly updated, but the policies were not. What little there was that was new— “inner-city ‘enterprise zones, a presidential line-item veto, and a new Air Force bomber”—was either small bore or, as Charles Pierce argues, “either bad on [their] face or politically futile.” What is missed then among those who want to see “Mandate” as “serious” is that it didn’t actually have to be rigorous or new. Rather, “Mandate” was produced to market Heritage as the new conservative institutional voice in the “marketplace of ideas.” Feulner himself admits in such a world the policy “products” Heritage was selling didn’t have to be new or rigorous. Tax cuts, like Crest toothpaste, could be proffered “every day by keeping the product fresh in the consumer’s mind.” “Mandate” would thus be the first sales pitch of this repetitive process with Heritage acting as an advertising agency.

Relatedly, the argument that Heritage was always an elitist organization and detached from grass-roots conservative activism is also belied by the evidence. Once again, to understand why, we have to return to Heritage’s original institutional vision—born in the '70s, crystallized in the '80s, and, in many ways, perfected in the present. In the 1970s, Heritage’s founders did not just want to be another AEI, which they saw as by and for the political elite. Heritage instead saw itself as a “high” and a “low” political project—designed to help conservative elites promote conservative policy but with a strong grass-roots component, both in terms of funding and political projects. At first, Heritage received nearly all its funding from conservative elites like Joseph Coors and others such as Richard Mellon Scaife, which was also the AEI base of funding. However, in late 1974, such contributions jeopardized the emergent think tank’s tax-exempt status, which led Heritage to explore small-dollar contributions through direct mail efforts. By 1981, the strategy yielded 120,000 small contributors paying $2–$20 annually. The overall number of Heritage contributors climbed to 600,000 by 2007.

This meant that for almost all of its history Heritage has been responsible to both conservative elites and the conservative grass roots. This is also why, throughout the '70s and '80s, Heritage was the only think tank that wrote and spoke directly to the emergent concerns of grass-roots Christian conservatives. In its very early years, Heritage even sent legal counsel to Kanawha County, W.Va., to assist Christian conservative parents who were organizing against the content of their children’s public school textbooks.

Heritage’s current town halls and political rallies against Obamacare and its activist online component, Heritage Action, might be seen as new manifestations of this grass-roots political sensibility, but it is certainly not a new goal for the think tank in and of itself. It has always seen its interests as aligned, and supported financially by, conservative elites and the conservative grass roots. Today, they have merely perfected marshaling that grass-roots energy.

Lawmakers, opinion makers and the public alike should realize that the current moment in Heritage’s history is nothing new. Heritage’s ascendancy to the politically powerful and politically relevant position it holds today is because of a refinement of the institution’s original political project not because it has become something it once wasn’t. In particular, liberal opinion makers need to stop telling themselves stories about the “serious conservatism” that existed in a mythic past—one that has been tragically displaced by the rowdy Tea Party conservatism. Without a doubt, serious, rigorous conservatism has existed and will continue to exist in the United States. But, in the policy debating world in which we live, which has existed since Heritage’s early days, rigor is not required for entry. Speed, responsiveness and political identity are what’s needed. It is hard to blame those at Heritage for realizing this as early as they did. As someone interested in rigorous inquiry on questions of policy, I find this dynamic to be lamentable, but it is unlikely to change any time soon.

Likewise, however much I deplore the goals of Tea Party political activism, I admire their ability to organize at the grass roots and the ability of Heritage to make sure that organizing is happening. Citizen involvement in politics is a good thing and should not be denigrated in the service of rule by elites and elite institutions. If those on the liberal/left dislike this particular brand of citizen activism, we need to organize effectively on the other pole with an equal willingness to criticize the modern Democratic Party for its vast array of problematic stances. Recognizing the actual history of the Heritage Foundation might help us in such an effort.

By Jason Stahl

Jason Stahl is a historian in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota. His book, Right Moves: The Conservative Think Tank in American Political Culture since 1945 (University of North Carolina Press) will be out next year. He is on Twitter @stahljason.

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